We passed the grave each time we drove to the Mexican restaurant.
“Lit up like a goddamn carnival,” my father said, cloudy with gin. Always that rotgut citrus smell, forest waste or watered-down cleaner, blatant as assault.
“Hush, you,” mother said, chickenclaw hands white at the wheel. “They’re honoring her the best they know how.”
“Honoring,” my father mimed, singsongy. “No amount of trashy decor’s gonna bring her back.”
I turned to the breath-steamed window, parting a pane with my ungloved hand. There among the ornamental maples of the cemetery, I could just make out the wise men: bulb-lit, clustered, faces in prayerful repose. They appeared the day after Thanksgiving and stood through late January, long after we’d packed the plastic mistletoe in tissue, dragged molting trees to the curb. I never found out where the extension cords led.
With the slow, leany turn onto Northdale, the grave slipped from view. Once we parked, my thoughts flitted to El Loro Cantina, my family’s lone weekly outing, taken on Saturdays. I loved the mariachi trills, thin paper flags streamed from the ceiling’s corners, party-gaudy colors made dim by age. Orange kitchen warmth glowed through the passthrough. In those days, before I gave up eating almost entirely, I chewed chips deliberately, ground them into mush as my parents scraped bean from their plates, unspeaking. Let the thick salt sting the pinch of my lips, daydreamt blood: quarts and gallons running the gutters when Amanda Minor sailed from the car — flight-stunned, athletic — and her golden body met the thud of street.
Saturday dinners were early, 4:30 or 5:00, a fact I now attribute to the dining room’s reliable vacancy. Once my father was drunk, there was no telling what he’d do, whom he’d insult, though his tirades often centered on the stupidity of Amanda’s death or how El Loro’s management gouged the regulars by periodically raising the price of chips con queso.
“Dumb-ass accident,” my father said, spittle frothing his mouth’s corners. Stabbed his fork in the direction of his enchilada, missed. “Kids out for a joyride, road sodas, and what do you think is going to happen? Tragic, my ass.” He pulled deep from a margarita that smelled as syrupy as it looked.
My mother’s eyes never left her plate. “No one thinks they’ll die like that,” she finally said. She fidgeted, rubbed the wrapper from her napkin roll into grainy shreds. I could tell she wanted to say more — You might die in a way that’s not so different — but the meal had reached the point where she valued silence above winning.
I dipped a chip in salsa, licked the salsa off. In the far corner of the dining room, the papier-mâché parrot rode its brass hoop, paint-blue eyes fixed in an imprecise stare.
Among us younger kids, Amanda had earned the stature of legend. News of her death had halted high school for a week, extracurriculars subbed out for vigils. Ad hoc therapy in the fieldhouse, all the lanky volleyball girls bawling into dusty air. Mrs. Minor, it was said, took the stage at the weekly assembly, holding aloft her dead daughter’s bloody sock as a warning against drunk driving. In the bleachers, thin retchy echoes of juniors losing their lunch.
We middle schoolers got the leftover rations of grief, but leftovers were better than nothing. Lunchtime, milk cartons drained and crushed, cloud-white buns run through with straws, we speculated. Probably Amanda’s boyfriend had ushered her early from the party, planned to park at the dam on the reach of road untouched by streetlamp. Feel her up, we always added, our words jeering, unbacked by practical knowledge. Get it on. We had nothing but conjecture to fuel the image of her boyfriend demon-drunk at the wheel, yearning and already gone, yellow eyes loose in watery sockets. Amanda’s were the pleas of a silent-film starlet: dramatic and choreographed, invisible in the face of preordained disaster. As the car sideswept the twenty-year oak, sheared the embankment, Amanda pressed her body into the Ford’s sturdy frame. Prayed. We shivered to think of the final moments, pale bodies’ necks crooked as wire hangers, mouths dribbling blood, siren’s peals bouncing the walls of the man-made ravine. Then, dismantling fantasy, the shrill call of the bell. We bussed our trays to the wheeled bins acid-sweet with ketchup, headed to class.
I visited her grave once the thaw came. Peaked trickle of runoff in the sewers, icicles losing themselves to maddening metronomic drip. I packed a bag of essentials: Hi-Cs, Pringles, last year’s valentines, their tiny white envelopes grubbed with chocolate fingerprints. In World Cultures, we’d learned about shrines and altars — tables lain with cloth embroidered by the matriarch, new blood of virgins slicking the pyramid’s steps. A sacrifice could be anything, Ms. Deutsch had said, of value: anything at all. In the absence of children or chicken, a sketchbook, Stretch Armstrong with the torso tear that peeked at his meltglue interior. Value derived only from personal context. All winter, I’d honed my plan, considering my possessions in terms of their relative worth. This puzzle or that geode? Halloween candy or granola bar? There were no right answers. The mystery of my work sustained me through my parents’ fights, audible through the shaky walls, through early sunsets.
The route to the cemetery was unsidewalked; I followed the roads our car drove to El Loro, kept to the dirt path worn by other walkers. Street lamps nodded on in frigid lilac afternoon. I rubbed my gloved fingers to feel polyester denaturing. At last, the graveyard, penned by rusting cyclone. The gate was laced through by chain arm thick, lock clasped, so I tossed my bag over like in the movies. The crumbling Pringles rattled flinty, brittle in their cardboard can. I found footholds and scaled.
The grave greeted me blankly, waiting as it waited for anyone. There, brushed clear of powder, that familiar granite plank, prim as a hatbox. Every time my family’s car eased past the cemetery, I could make out the the pink wink of mylar bobbing on worn ribbon, teddy bear gone soggy in the weather. Surreal, to see it all up close, the clouded glint of the bear’s glass eyes. Mrs. Minor had staked a crook into frost-solid earth to hang the potted petunias. Unseasonable, my mother would have said if passing by, flowers dulled and shriveled by sharp air. My father would have grunted in agreement.
I, deep in observation, didn’t verbalize my thoughts. Cleared the piled damp leaves, made myself a place to face the stone. Forever our angel, reclaimed too soon cut deep into mauve granite. I wondered at the tool that wouldn’t falter making s-curves, attendant serifs. I didn’t fear discovery. Plucked off my gloves to unzip my bag and pour out the shattered Pringles. Sprinkled them like birdseed: even distribution in the name of fairness, symmetry. I’d meant to pour them in the shape of a heart but the shape came out looking triangle. Once the chips had taken in the snow’s moisture, their scent would heighten; we wetted Tiffy’s food when she was sick, off her appetite. Sodden food just smells more potent to the animals. At some point, after I’d gone, the creatures would wander in from the thin surrounding woods. Squirrels and field mice, for sure, but maybe a raccoon or a coyote. I pictured them gathered in a peaceable circle, nibbling each their own share of Pringles. Pelts of all stripes and colors bringing Amanda a wilderness communion. I punctured a juicebox, sipped.
My estimate? I sat above her shoulder bones. Scapula, we’d learned in health, memorizing the calcified puzzle of ourselves. I scooted backward to bring us nearer to face-to-face, though the angle and dark yards of earth prevented conversational arrangement. I wondered at what she could feel. Nothing, yes, she was porous and still, driftwood clean, but I hoped for something. A shift in timbre of the creaking of her coffin’s boards whenever her family gathered above her; hints of moisture in the soil as spring runoff percolated. Maybe she could sense me now; maybe the entangled roots carried vibrations like song, alerting her to an adoring stranger’s presence.
Two crows scritched the thatchy grass, not cawing. Fixed on their eyes, catalogue glossy, I dug in my bag. Retrieved the year-old cards, sun-dated, and slipped them from their envelopes. I reviewed the stack: spotted puppy in a wreath of roses, airline pilot whose jet left a contrail of hearts. Robot’s scroll of ones and zeroes encoding a message of love unrealized. Before I laid the cards out like tarot somewhere above her skull, I read each one aloud.
“Valentine,” I mumbled, conscious of my voice in the empty air, “you’ve got the best face on earth or in space.” An astronaut, tethered to a waiting ship, his eyes replaced by heart-shaped reflections of our world. The cards hadn’t been meant for her, not initially, but I hoped intent could be cosmically transferred.
Thaw or no, the evenings still sunk to the thirties. I ran my nails along my thumbpads to bring blood back to the surface. Shivered with purpose. I’d finished reading the cards, which sat gridded on the ground before the gravestone. Crossways, El Loro’s lights planed cheerful against the lowering sky. My parents might be wondering where I was, assuming the best, starting up their last argument wherever they’d left off. Amanda’s family, they were a companionable unknown.
Struggling to warm myself, I thought of Amanda’s family, their small routines. Her father, bent at his workbench: socket set sorted and neat as ducklings, circular saw swept free of dust. Rise and sweaty gentle wisp of his hair under the shop lights, humming, chest clenched as he paused to contain emergent tears. Her siblings, rangy Catholic brood, gleeful after an arcade afternoon. Pumping the skil crane with quarters: weeks’ savings, tithe to their departed beloved. Slow, the lowering of the slippery claw, unsteady on its tinky chain. Exact, the click of the button to release. Whatever stuffed bear or kitten they’d dredged would appear here the following week, a memorial until the elements battered it. And her mother, steward of this space, her weekly trips to arrange the poly-fil circus won by her living offspring, guardian of the ever-replenishing neon homage.
I pictured her mother clearly then, my breath vaporing the air before me. Parking just beyond the gate, shrouded in mothy Macy’s houndstooth, she’d approach her daughter’s grave, squint at the pulpy mess left there. Stoop to collect the Valentines, her palms damp. The cards wouldn’t dry on the short ride home. Idling in the garage, Mrs. Minor would consider laying them on the laundry room counter to dry them, reading the short messages for clues about the receiver. They’d stay on the passenger’s seat a week before disposal. But that night, at least, they’d remain safely in limbo, subject of a warming, puzzling suppertime tale.
“You’ll never guess,” she’d address her family, smiling over ham steaks and clotty potatoes, canned beans wreathing her in ethereal steam. “I found the strangest thing at the grave today.”